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Welcome to my home page. I became blind at birth. I started programming computers at a young age. I also earned my general class amateur radio license, KA3TTT, a hobby to which I have returned with great joy. I practice Qigong, and consider it the most important thing in my life. I cook gluten-free vegan meals. I use Linux as my desktop and Android as my mobile OS. For the rest you'll have to read my blog.

The Quest for my iPad 2

March 24, 2011

I have it! I have my iPad 2. Getting it proved one of the strangest experiences in recent days. Listen if you will to my tale.

When Apple announced the iPad 2, I felt intrigued, and wondered if I should buy one despite owning an iPad 1. I read and thought and read some more, and eventually decided to. I wanted to experience the dual core processor, and wondered if it would boost VoiceOver performance. The iPad 1 always seemed a little clunky to me. The new design sounded interesting as well, and I wondered if it would have better feel appeal. Apple always does such a wonderful job with making things that feel cool to hold. I also felt very excited when I learned of the glass display. I figured I wouldn’t have a problem finding a new owner for my iPad 1, I still consider it a beautiful piece of machinery, but I wanted to move forward.

I read that Apple would make it available at 04:00 A.M. eastern time on March 10th. I knew they would sell out fast, but as it happened, one of my favorite radio shows called Over the Edge, would play then anyway, so I knew I could successfully pull this off. By 04:30 I had used my iPad 1 to purchase my iPad 2, with an estimated shipping speed of 3-5 business days. Perfect. The night owl gets the iPad! I enjoyed the show and went to bed. When I woke up, Japan had suffered the earthquake and the world had changed.

Around 01:00 in the afternoon I checked the Twittersphere to find that shipment dates on the iPad 2 had moved back to 3-4 weeks. I felt glad about my clever plan. I received the proper confirmation emails from Apple, and within a few days its journey had started from China. The situation in Japan had worsened and people wondered if this would effect the production of the iPad 2. I wondered if mine would become radioactive. I felt bad for those afflicted, but read a touching article which said that Apple stores had become rallying points, describing people flocked outside them just so they could get an internet connection. They also let people charge their iDevices, and I pictured iPhone users like myself frantically doing so. I wondered if any blind Japanese iPhone users charged theirs. With these thoughts I waited.

My order said I would get my iPad 2 by March 18th. They also shipped my smart cover in a separate package with the same arrival date. As the date drew closer I tracked the package and saw that the iPad would arrive on the 17th, St. Patrick’s day, with the cover still scheduled for the 18th. This made me feel great, and I even came up with a witty title for my article: Top of the iPad 2 ya!

I love St. Patrick’s day, even though I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in me. My friend Liz comes over and we listen to Irish music and live coverage on Live Ireland. I cook vegetarian stew and we have a good time. Neither of us drink. This year, I anticipated a special day indeed. Imagine my shock when my iPad didn’t show up.

I couldn’t believe it. I had tracked the package during the whole day. The package had gone out for delivery in the morning, and I sat in my recliner by the front door, anxiously awaiting the doorbell. Suddenly, it showed as delivered and signed for. My doorbell had not rung and I had not gotten it, let alone signed for it. I paced my porch and wondered.

I didn’t know what else to do, so continued my day’s plans. I started preparing vegetarian Guinness stew. As the name suggests it calls for a bottle of Guinness in the stew. Since I don’t drink I didn’t have any, and since you can’t buy alcohol in Swarthmore I couldn’t easily get any. Fortunately I got my mom to bring me some, which she picked up at Swarthmore Pizza. They technically reside in a neighboring town, so can serve alcohol. She also scanned my porch and confirmed that I had no package. With that knowledge and a bottle of Guinness I continued, unsure of what to think.

Liz came over, and we enjoyed the wonderful stew, which worked out perfectly. We even sent Live Ireland an email, and the two hosts, a vegetarian and a vegan, wanted the recipe. Very cool! Liz left with a bunch and gave me a cake she had spontaneously bought. I enjoyed the day immensely, but worried about my package.

The next day I waited outside in the pleasant almost nice afternoon with my MacBook Air. My other package with my smart cover still showed out for delivery, so I hoped that would come and I could snag the Fedex guy and ask him some questions. He finally showed up, and I signed for the package. If they make me sign for a $39 smart cover, then surely they would make me sign for a $599 iPad. I told him the story so far and he said that they have three guys, and that one of the others must have delivered the package. He suggested I call Fedex, so I did.

Nothing they said made sense. They showed the same thing I saw, delivered and signed for… by K Seraphin? My name starts with an A, and I have an illegible signature. I began to suspect the worst, that someone ripped off my iPad. They told me they would initiate a trace, but I wouldn’t hear anything until Monday. This bothered me, but what else could I do? I could celebrate the Equinox and watch the Lord of the Rings! Before the day ended though I did call Apple, who told me to wait to hear from Fedex, and if I could not get the package they would send me a replacement or a refund. They handled the whole thing very professionally. Once again Apple came through. Now I had a cover but no iPad.

I spent the weekend listening to some Tolkien material and taking care of any loose ends so I could relax for a few days. On Sunday the 20th I began my celebration at 07:20 PM eastern time. I enjoyed the movies but wondered what I’d hear on Monday. Monday came and I heard that they would have the delivery guy go back to exactly where he dropped it off and try to retrieve it, and that I would hear them on Tuesday. I didn’t know what else to do, so thanked them and continued watching the movies, contemplating the theme of uncertainty. The movies have less uncertainty than the books, since the movie starts with the backstory. In the books the reader only learns this information at the Council of Elrond, midway through the first book.

Tuesday came. Interestingly, this correlated with 1 Ahau in the Mayan calendar, the sacred day of Venus. I put on disc one of the Fellowship of the Ring and waited. Fedex called as the Council of Elrond gathered. The lady told me that they contacted the delivery man, and he felt absolutely confident that he dropped the package off. I told her I felt absolutely confident that he didn’t, and that I didn’t sign for it, and what’s this? You have a signature release that I didn’t agree to either? The more she talked, the less things made sense. The less things made sense, the angrier I became. I stepped outside to make sure I hadn’t gone absolutely insane and missed the package, but of course found nothing. She just sat there, as dumb and silent as a paperweight, and told me to contact Apple. I felt disgusted and thanked her. I hung up right as Frodo accepted his quest.

By this time five days had passed and I had to consider the possibility of theft. I did mention it on Twitter. Could someone have ripped it off? Did someone stalk me down and wait outside my house to intercept the delivery guy and forge my signature to rip off my iPad? It seemed too complicated. It would make more sense for a criminal to just rip off a package from Apple. And what of the signature? And what of the release that I didn’t agree to? Did this iPad stealing ring even reach into Fedex? They could collaborate with a Fedex worker with access to that information to alter computer records to make off with packages. I cursed all the god damn iPad spammers on Twitter, offering their free iPad 2’s that likely fell off the back of a delivery truck just like Mine. Curse them! Destroyers and usurpers! But what of the delivery guy who felt confident he delivered it? Did they get him in on it too? Who do you even mean by They? The Russians?

I talked the situation over with my family, and decided to file a police report. I had never done this before. I called the local police, and a guy took down my information in a matter of fact way. He didn’t seem too alarmed, but agreed that at the least Fedex did not follow proper procedure. Something clearly had gone wrong. He gave me the report number and also suggested I talk to Apple. All roads seemed to lead there anyway, so I called them back. I told them that I had heard from Fedex, who told me nothing and to call Apple. Apple understood, and told me they would launch an investigation within twenty-four hours. They also deducted the price of the smart cover for the inconvenience. How thoughtful. I decided to try to enjoy the rest of the movie.

I put on Disc two of the Fellowship of the Ring. The fellowship soon met Galadriel, the Lady of Light. Suddenly, my doorbell rang. I had a strange feeling. Would it really happen? Would I get my iPad 2 while celebrating the Equinox as well as 1 Ahau in the Mayan calendar, the sacred day of Venus, and right at the moment when the fellowship receives gifts from the Lady of Light?

A woman stood on my porch. “Hello. I have this package for you.” I could hardly believe it. “They delivered it to the house two doors down. I don’t know why people do this, but instead of just bringing it to you, they called us. When we went to retrieve it the first time, they weren’t home, and they finally called back again today and I just got it. It’s been sitting there since…. I don’t know when.” “Since Thursday.” I said elatedly. I felt awestruck. I signed for the package myself for real with my wacky signature and gratefully accepted it. I thanked this wonderful manifestation of Goddess profusely. She had done it. She had come through. After all my fears, it came back to the SNAFU principle as it usually does. Situation Normal: All Fucked Up. Hobbits have such a sense of family, but I can’t even get someone two doors down to bring a blind neighbor a package.

I brought the package inside as the movie played. “My gift to you, Legolas, is a bow of the Galadhrim, worthy of the skill of our woodland kin. (To MERRY and PIPPIN) These are the daggers of Noldorin. They have already seen service in war. Do not fear, young Peregrin Took. You will find your courage.” I got out my pocketknife. “And for you, Samwise Gamgee, Elven rope made of hithlain.” “Thank you, my lady. Have you run out of those nice shiny daggers?” I battled with the pocketknife to get a blade to open the package, then decided to resort to scissors. “And what gift would a dwarf ask of the Elves?” I began opening the box. “Nothing. Except to look upon the lady of the Galadhrim one last time. For she is more fair than all the jewels beneath the earth.” I got it open and started extracting the box containing the iPad. “Actually… there was one thing.. er.. no, no I couldn’t. It’s quite impossible. Stupid to ask.” “I removed the box and cast aside the packing materials. “I have nothing greater to give than the gift you already bear.” I started opening the cellophane. “You have your own choice to make, Aragorn. To rise above the height of all your fathers since the days of Elendil, or to fall into darkness with all that is left of your kin. Nam·riΔ

Finally, at long last, I actually held the iPad 2 in my hands. “Farewell, Frodo Baggins. I give you the light of Earendil, our most beloved star.” “May it be a light for you in dark places, where all other lights go out.” I felt absolutely overcome by the beauty of the synchronicity, not to mention the beauty of the object I now held in my curious hands. I knew that I held a blessed item. It is precious to me.

Epilogue: I hooked it up to my iMac. iTunes automagically imported my settings from my old iPad, and the brand new iPad 2 came up talking immediately. Wonderful beautiful Apple! I called off the police investigation and told Apple as well. Everything worked out. It took a whole article just to tell the story of how I got it. Now I have to write my review of the actual device. By the way, I think I will give my iPad 1 to my Mom. iPads make perfect Mom devices.

Let there be Light Detectors

March 02, 2011

I feel glad to report that we can now add light probes to the list of blind technology now made obsolete by the iPhone. Recently, I received an email from a blind user who worked with Everywhere Technologies to create the Light Detector app. It costs a dollar and behaves as advertised.

The app works very simply. It produces a constantly wavering tone. A higher tone means a more intense light source. It doesn’t even have any controls. Just start it and enjoy. Press the home button to end. Perfect.

Unlike the Color Identifier app which I previously demonstrated, this app measures the intensity of the light as opposed to its color. Often, this will tell you all you need to know. For example, when I used Earthlink, which I recently learned still exists, we had a little problem. My DSL went out as it would from time to time. Usually it didn’t matter, but once in a great while I would have to call in a ticket to get it resolved. At first this didn’t pose a problem, I would explain that I couldn’t tell them about the lights on the modem and they would understand and fill out the ticket and I would get my net back. Then one day this happened and I called in only to find that they had outsourced their tech support. I couldn’t believe it. I kept trying to explain to some guy in Goddess knows where that I could not see the lights on the modem. “That’s what blind means. I can’t see the lights.” I kept saying, but to no avail. Of course it happened when the rest of my family went on a vacation and I couldn’t summon a sighted person to immediately come and tell them about the stupid lights on the stupid modem. As a result I didn’t have my DSL for a week and that ended our relationship. I wish I would have had this app then.

It seems interesting to me that this app gives a different way to perceive light than the Color Identifier app. Some might wonder why one would just want to know the intensity, when you could know the color. The two things make up two properties of light. Color Identifier will pick up the color of objects, of light reflected off objects, and of light sources. The Light Detector app just picks up the intensity of a light source. It intrigues me to perceive vision in these two different modalities. Once again, technology makes it possible.

I feel inspired that the iPhone continues to make other specialized technology mainstream and obsolete. I feel inspired that a blind user worked with developers to make this wonderful app. As a programmer, I feel inspired by the app’s minimalist design. You never know what wonderful surprises life will bring next. Let there be light, and let there be light detectors. You can hear an audio demonstration here.

The Attack of the Valentine’s Day Tomato

February 14, 2011

I previously detailed my purchase of the Asus RT-N16 router, on which I put DDWRT. At the time, that seemed like the right choice, but recently I have had reason to switch to Tomato. For a loving touch, I did it on Valentine’s night. How sweet.

Both firmwares offer a Linux-based open-source alternatives to the stock firmware which comes with a router, and which usually sucks. I originally went with DD-WRT, and for a while it seemed to work. Then, I started trying to configure VO/IP software, and started running into problems with SIP routing. I tried both Asterisk and Freeswitch, eventually settling on the latter. At this stage it didn’t matter though, as neither worked. I could make calls internally, but as soon as someone tried accessing from the outside it failed.

We banged our collective heads against a firewall until Bec the Tech read reviews on NewEgg which recommended Tomato. Sure enough, development seems to have fragmented with DD-WRT, especially when it comes to my specific router. Bec almost returned her router after installing dd-wrt, because it kept locking her out, not letting her enter an admin password. The web interface also acted very slowly and kept crashing with Firefox and Window-Eyes. She had much better luck with Tomato, and showed me the interface, which I liked even more, especially the port forwarding. It works spectacularly with Safari and VoiceOver on the Mac as well, which I use. I wondered if it would fix my SIP issues. No matter what, I would at least get a better interface. I decided to go for it.

I found very straightforward instructions for Linux. They seemed very doable. It took me a few times, but eventually I got it working just with tftp. Pretty nifty. I then switched back to Safari on my Mac for the web work. As said, the interface behaves wonderfully. I did find two unlabeled fields, but quickly figured out that they contain dns servers. A blind person who knows their way around a router could figure that out, though they should label the field. Other than that little thing, I’ve felt very satisfied. The countdown timer even works well, a neat effect to see it updating a timer while the router reboots.

After getting it configured the time came for the real test. I entered in all the SIP ports in the forwarding table, a very easy task by the way, the best port forwarding interface I’ve used. I tried calling internally. It worked. Then Bec tried calling. We could hear each other! It worked!

I did notice one thing, and I wonder if it has always happened and I just noticed it now while testing. It seems that my cordless phone interferes with my wireless network. When I use my iPhone and pick up my cordless, the iPhone switches to 3G. I found this out accidentally, but it makes sense. I tried switching channels but to no avail. I even tried Tomato’s cool channel scanner with the cordless phone active at several ranges. Nothing seems to make a difference. At first I wondered about Tomato, but now I kind of wonder if it just always happened and I only noticed now. I’ll let you all know when I know more.

So in summary, if you use DD-WRT and have started noticing weird routing problems, switch to Tomato. Don’t bang your head against a firewall for nothing. You still get all of the Linux goodness, and a cleaner interface. The development also seems more centralized and stable. As Bec said, “I trust teddybears more than crazy Russians.”

Loretta’s Adaptive Sports Expo in West Chester, Pennsylvania

February 14, 2011

I just attended an adaptive sports expo put on by Loretta Cohen at the YMCA in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I met Loretta while skiing for the second time. She told me that I should attend her expo. I promised I would and I did. I feel very inspired by the whole thing. I prepared a special audio presentation which contains a bunch of the demonstrations and the main presentation. I hope you enjoy.

Adaptive sports refer to sports modified for those with special needs. This includes those blind like me, as well as those in wheelchairs or with artificial limbs, anything special like that. I pretty much specialize in my own disability, so it felt interesting to see others with issues I had never considered. They had wheelchair basketball and hockey, and even ballroom dancing. They had demonstrations of swimming, kayaking, and even scuba. In the room where I spent the most time, they had golf and the thing I came to see, karate.

I went with my Mom, who also has an interest in such things. We met Loretta, who recognized me immediately as her skiing buddy. She signed us in and told us about the different programs. We walked around, and quickly found the golf and karate room.

As soon as I entered, Ken greeted me: “Oh! My favorite disability to work with!” He greeted all of those interested with similar enthusiasm. He got right down to business. I like that.

I took karate as a kid, and some of it sort of came back to me. He jingled some keys to give me an audio cue, and had me block his hand. Next, he showed me how to use my other hand to engage their wrist to enter grappling mode. He then began showing me how to use my cane as a weapon. I have a graphite cane, a very light material, which I prefer. You can use anything as a weapon. This would become an amazing reoccurring theme. The whole time he showed me things, he also demonstrated to his assistant Chris. This guy really took a beating throughout the day.

We explored a few more uses of the cane. First he demonstrated using it to restrain. Then you can do lots of cool things, such as squeezing their throat. Next, he showed how to use it to strike. This does two things. It inflicts damage of course, but it also conveys information. The position of the strike on the cane tells the location of the attacker. Mobility skills transfer perfectly here, using the same skills one would ordinarily use for navigation. Cool class!

He then had to work with an amputee. he would take a different approach for each person, since every disability has unique challenges, and each person has unique needs. For this guy, he said that he would not have a challenge, since he ambulates well, and that they would concentrate on balance. He said to assume that he would end up on the ground, and to use that to his advantage. “Every able-bodied person will have to bend over to beat you up.” Man cannot fight if man cannot stand.

A girl came up to me, who introduced herself as Laura, a volunteer. Ken then came back to me and reinforced using the cane as a weapon. “If someone gets you on the ground, you start poking them with your cane. In their ribs, in their throat, in their head. These things will make people want to run away. Does this make sense?” “Yes.” “I can’t hear you!” “YEAH!” He demonstrated a few things on Chris. This included a clap to the ear, which would make someone deaf.

Next, one of his younger students came in, a girl probably around twelve or so in a wheelchair. “Chris, would you mind attacking her as you see fit?” SHe has a white belt, don’t worry. She successfully defended herself using some chops. “Hit him with the wheelchair.” encouraged Ken. He then showed me a move where you curl your fingers back and strike someone under the nose with the heel of your hand. Badass! “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Claw the eyes out! Good girl.” It felt inspiring to see a white belt girl in a wheelchair defending herself, even in a controlled setting. “It’s cool to use whatever accessories you have.” I said. “Exactly. They are part of you.” said Ken.

Laura told me that they also had golfing in this room, so we decided to check it out. I played some golf as a kid as well, but neither of us knew enough to really do anything. Laura plays Rugby. “I could put a golf club in your hand, but I don’t even know how to size it up or anything.” she said. “I don’t even know what that means, so I guess we’re in the same boat. I guess we’ll both learn.” We would have a presentation in five minutes, so the golf instructor didn’t have much time. He referred me to the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association. I had heard about them. Maybe this year I’ll check them out. We had to go to go see ballroom dancing in wheelchairs.

We headed over to the gym and waited for the event to start. Mom and I talked about the karate demonstration. I asked her what belt I had, and she said she remembers a yellow belt in the wash. She also said the little girl student looked so cute, and about the same height as when I did karate. We discussed the range of disabilities. Mom saw a lot of wheelchairs and amputees. “You know the guy you were talking to about golf? No legs.” I found it interesting that since I can’t see the other people, I don’t know what disability they have. I wouldn’t have known. Mom reminded me of our trip to the Apple store, where I had a salesman with a prosthetic arm. Laura found me and helped me fill out a survey. Interested in golf and karate and skiing (which ironically they didn’t list) in the afternoon or evening.

Loretta came on and gave a speech thanking everyone and introducing the demonstrations to follow. Ken came up with his faithful assistant Chris. “All I have to say is that a lot of people believe or want to believe that people with disabilities are helpless and great targets, I am here to prove to you today that we are not.” He shut off the mic and began some thumping moves. At one point, he threw Chris to the ground with such a strong grip on his pants, that they ripped. The recording even picked it up! Everyone laughed. Poor guy, but you must admit, it would distract an attacker! After Chris got thrown to the hard gymnasium floor a few times, I think Mom started feeling a little freaked out. I assured her that black belts learn how to take falls. Chris progressed to using a stick, a knife, and with a final warning from Ken not to try this at home, a toy gun. Ken disarmed Chris each time. Everyone applauded, and gave another round for Chris.

Next, they brought up American Dance Wheels, who adapt the sport of dancing to those in wheelchairs. “Ken isn’t always a killer, he’s sometimes a lover.” He would later explain to me that a lot of the same moves he uses in martial arts he also uses in dancing – an interesting duality. I know nothing about dancing. I wondered if learning it would make me more of a gentleman or something. After Ken danced to oldies, the cute karate girl from earlier came up and danced to modern pop music. The instructor showed how dance steps map to the wheels on a wheelchair.

After that, Loretta introduced Scott Brown who demonstrated swimming. He works with the Pennsylvania Center for Adaptive Sports, the same group who has the skiing program. He wanted to do SCUBA too. I would have liked to see that, but unfortunately when we found the pool it had a sign warning us NO STREET SHOES. He also does rowing, a five-time world champion who competed in the para-olympics. He gave an inspirational speech. He didn’t do sports until after his accident, where they became a method of recovery. It got him up and doing things again. He calls adaptive sports the rehab after rehab. This makes good sense. They can only go so far in rehab organizations, then you have to go from there.

Loretta closed by thanking her sponsor, and said to get out and try something! That sounded good so we headed back to the karate room for more action. I saw Laura again, and asked her for the contact info for karate. This didn’t seem apparent, but then she spotted some surprisingly high quality promotional key rings with the name and number. Open Hands Karate. Ken and Chris came back in and we talked about his class. They don’t usually train disabled students separately, which I found interesting. I got private lessons when I took karate as a kid. I needed them. Ken asked about my interests. I mentioned this blog and this article and the fact that I want to start a business to help people with special needs use technology. I excitedly brought out my iPhone and showed him my home screen. Ken said this technology makes him feel more inclusive of people. “There’s a place for me now and in the future. I hate to think of it like this, but a hundred years ago I would have been allowed to die.” “And now we can do more.” I completed the thought. He wondered what we missed out on a hundred years ago. “There’s no telling what’s going to happen next. That’s why I am so excited about it.”

A girl came in, and authoritatively said she came here for martial arts. She introduced herself as Erin, and I learned through Ken’s questioning that she uses a wheelchair due to arthritis. Again, I would never have known, since I couldn’t see her. “We’re not going to worry about what you can’t do, we’re just going to find out what you can.” Ken assured her.

Ken included me by showing me moves, then having her follow me. “Power chairs are fun to maneuver.” she said cheerfully. So now we had a karate instructor in a wheelchair demonstrating moves to a blind person to show to another student in a wheelchair as well. This felt great. He also made comments to Chris about adapting karate to someone in a wheelchair. I always felt impressed how he would adapt the art to the person’s unique disability. He showed us upper, middle, and lower blocks. With me, he showed me my cane’s potential, and with Erin he showed her how her wheelchair acts as armor and can inflict damage. He said she should consider these things when getting her next chair. She said she also plays power hockey. He then showed me how to use my cane as an extension of my arm. This turns blocks into ranged strikes!

He made fun of able-bodies who say that someone with a disability couldn’t learn martial arts. The discussion doesn’t get very far talking to a black belt in a wheelchair. It reminds me of when sighted people complain that they can’t watch a movie because of how it looks. That excuse won’t go very far with me. Now go watch Pi already! “I an Rabbi Cohen. Cohen, like you.”

Ken then asked Erin where she lives. She said past Medford, which I presumed contained Medford Lake. I fell into Medford Lake when my family lived there for a short time. While in a canoe, my Dad thought his four-year-old blind son should feel a lilly pad. He leaned WAY over to try to retrieve one. You can take it from there. Erin came quite a ways just to find out about any adaptive karate in her area. Chris knew of someone, and I wish her the best.

Next, another girl in a wheelchair came in. She has cerebral palsy. He showed her the same thing he showed Erin: if someone messes with you, run their butt over! After dealing with her, he told us three good rules to keep in mind. Man can’t fight if man can’t stand. “We make a liar out of that.” he said to Erin. Man can’t fight if man can’t see. “You make a liar out of that one, but able-bodies believe it.” he said to me. Then, a universal one: Man can’t fight if man can’t breathe. Hit his throat. Cup his nose and mouth. He’ll want to get away from you real quick. Or run them over with a chair or hit them with a stick. Sounds right for me.

He does not advocate this as a philosophy for life, rather a philosophy for making sure his life extends. “Creating the ability to turn on the attitude of being aggressive, and understanding and saying to yourself: I have the right to be, I have the right to my space, and I have the right to live a nice easy life, and you shouldn’t interfere with that. And I have those beliefs in spades.” I pointed out how a lot of this stuff seemed very simple. I know it takes complexity and training, but he knew what I meant. The body can only move in a certain number of ways.

Erin asked him about his specific disability. He said he had polio in 1958. He remembers the night he got interested in martial arts. It happened on the first Friday in September 1966, the night the Green Hornet first aired, and the night he first saw Bruce Lee. It took him twenty-two years to find the right teacher. It took him seven years for him to get a black belt. Now he teaches others.

Another woman named Chris came in, also an amputee, and she also had a cane. We back into some cane combat. I asked if I should buy a heavier cane, and he said that he liked my cane. I have a folding cane, with four segments held together by an elastic band. He demonstrated how to hit someone, then while they recover, pull the cane apart and use the elastic band to choke them. Yes! Her cane has a hook on it, as walking canes do, and he showed her how to take advantage of that. Canes make good weapons, with metal harder than bone. “You don’t want to go to the door of success, you want to go through the door of success.”

After a few more demonstrations the time came to leave. I felt great about the whole thing. We said our good byes, and I went home. I’ve since learned that Loretta will conduct one of these expos on the second Sunday of each month. I have a feeling we will have more fun articles and presentations like this in the future. If you live in the Philadelphia suburbs, check this out! You won’t regret it, no matter your disability. Now I have to look into technology to help people in wheelchairs. I found these cool wheelchair mounts for the iPad, for example. It always feels illuminating to think about other disabilities. I also can’t escape the irony that I wouldn’t have known which disabilities others had because of my own disability. It really makes you think. Now get out and try something fun!

Skiing for the Second Time, Howard Johnson for the Last Time

January 30, 2011

Before we begin, this piece has several companion files. You can see a picture of me and one of my instructors. You can hear for yourself how it sounds to ski. If you have Google Earth, you can download my .kmz file which contains all the GPS data, including the photograph. Please don’t take this as an endorsement of Google. I still consider them evil. Now with that out of the way we may begin this awesome journey.

Last year, I went skiing for the first time. As soon as I did, I knew I would go again the next year. And now I have.

Originally, another blind friend and I both wanted to go. We called and schedule parallel lessons. Unfortunately, her grandmother passed away, and she had to attend the memorial so could not go with us. I went ahead with my plans. My brother would take me again of course, and this time he got a bunch of his rowdy friends to join us. I say that somewhat jokingly of course, but when you get nine people together who all want to have a good time, unexpectedly funny situations always present themselves. This time proved no exception. Our group included me, my sister Audrey, my brother Ari, his wife Sarah, Mike and Kristy, Steve and Cat, and Jean. We all headed up in various ways and converged at Camelback.

We headed up the morning of the lesson. This time I had gotten one in the afternoon time slot, so we decided to stay that night rather than go up the previous day as we had done last year. Little annoying setbacks seemed to happen, but we overcame them. First, I stupidly left my wool socks and long underwear in the car. I also didn’t know who would do what or go where, and didn’t know wear and when I would get the opportunity to change. Of course, I should have known that they have places to change. Fortunately, they also have places to buy wool socks and long underwear.

That solved, we continued to register all of us. I had preregistered online, as had Mike, who I found out really knew how to ski. He ended up getting the most time out of all of us. He wanted to get started as quickly as possible, because his girlfriend had a lesson, and he figured that wouldn’t give him much time to ski down the more dangerous trails. She didn’t really go for it, so I have a feeling he got his chance. We encountered a little computer snafu. I don’t quite understand what happened, but they said they didn’t have us in the system, but they stamped mine from last year for some reason, and said that at the end it would say over due but that wouldn’t matter. I had no idea, so just agreed and stuck the ticket in my pocket.

Next, we got a locker, since my sister didn’t want to leave her purse anywhere. It requires inserting a quarter every time you open the thing. My sister put one in and the god damn thing promptly jammed. We had to get maintenance, who freed the quarter and fixed the locker. We apprehensively put our things in. I had put on my ski boots, so put my nice new snow boots into the locker of doom.

We then headed over to the cafeteria to eat and converge with more of the group and get lunch. It even smelled like an elementary school cafeteria. I got the classic ski resort combo – pizza and french fries. My pizza felt cooler in the middle which made me slightly nervous, but since it didn’t have any meat I at least felt a little better. And those fries sucked too. Whatever. I ate half and gave the rest away. It would have to do. Elementary school food indeed.

I showed up to the adaptive sports building at one o’clock on the dot. I felt glad to reacquaint myself with my skiing friends from the Pennsylvania Center for Adaptive Sports, and with Isabel, who heads the program. I saw Peter and Pat, my instructors from last year. I would get different ones this time. I soon met Loretta and Rich. Of course as soon as I heard the name Loretta, I thought of Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “From now on, I want you all to call me Loretta.” That made me laugh inwardly and boost my mood even more, washing away the morning’s annoyances.

The three of us went outside, weirdly walking in our ski boots. I fired up Ski Tracks. We got into our skis and shuffled to the beginning of the trail. We reviewed some basics. You have to keep your feet directly under your shoulders. The beginner’s slope meant we had to shuffle some, but we began gliding and practicing stopping. I began to remember.

We started out without any special equipment. Loretta skied backwards in front of me and squeezed a hand to signal a turn. She decided to put on the bungee. This would hold the tips of my skis closer together, which helps get the right configuration. Rich connected it, and I met Loretta’s cute kid Rebecca. After a little more skiing, Loretta decided that she wanted to switch from hand signals to a tether. Holding onto her hands would alter my body’s position, and a tether allows freer movement while still giving the instructor control. A rope connects to each ski, and the instructor skis behind and holds onto the ends. This gives the instructor the ability to control and stop the student. By the way, sighted skiers use this same equipment.

At first I felt scared to ski without holding on to any support, but I quickly took to it and my nervousness past. I did some awesome turns. Both instructors felt impressed. Loretta likes the tether for this reason. It does take building a certain level of trust, but once you get over that it works well.

Rich had never instructed a blind student before, so we had to give him a little lesson. We talked about the best system for audio cues. For a beginner, something like “Weight your right foot to turn left.” works very well, but that can become confusing for the instructor who has to ski backwards. I would then recommend starting with “Weight your right foot.” then transitioning to “Turn left.” After getting this straight we proceeded to the lift.

As we approached the lift, Loretta and I made an amazing discovery. Since the area in front of the lift just has straight ground, you have to maneuver your skis a lot more. This means having to manually move them. She used the (we thought) familiar analogy of hands on a clock. The blind use this to describe a lot of things, for example food on a plate. I have always loved clocks and time machines since childhood, so always felt at home with that analogy. She felt impressed that I moved my skis to 2:00 then to 1:00. She said that she tried to explain that to a blind kid a few weeks ago, and the kid didn’t understand what she meant. It occurred to me that kids today probably don’t have analogue clocks! Why would they? They probably use talking clocks, or those STUPID crappy uncouth talking watches. They’ve never felt a clock or a watch with hands they can move with their hands! As a kid I had a nice braille pocket watch. Now I have an iPhone. Amazing. Blind kids: do yourself a favor and get a braille clock if only for reference. An abacus wouldn’t hurt either, but I digress. Instructors: have a braille clock on hand for demonstrative purposes. You need to now. Oh my heart.

“Some people are freaked out by lifts, but I think they’re kind of cool.” These words would come back on me later. Loretta and I rode up in one lift, and Rich rode up in another with the equipment. I need to remember to get some ski pants. Last time we skied during the last week of the season, with temperatures in the 50s. This time we skied with temperatures in the high 20s. Snow fell, and I could especially feel it falling down while moving up in the lift. It felt somehow fitting.

I now must make a comment about the music. Last time, they played a mix of primarily eighties pop. I can live with that. It reminds me of childhood. This time, we noticed a lot more pop music from the nineties and later in the mix. Too bad. I long for a skiing place that plays crazy psytrance.

We did the second run. Rich skied backwards in front of me giving me directions, and Loretta skied behind me with the tether. Before I knew it I had gone down the steepest part of the trail. I began doing some turns in succession. Then Loretta said what Peter said last year, and what I love to hear. “You have absolute balance.” It comes from meditation. I do have to learn not to pitch my body when going off balance. Press the shins into the front or inside of the boot. It all fits together. I really got into it, and made a nice big C turn.         I then made a few in a row. “Those turns were so nice I forgot you were blind.” said Rich. Wonderful.

Rich went up with me on the lift for the second time. Loretta went up in another with her daughters and the equipment. We reviewed the protocol for entering and exiting a lift. The instructor should say “3-2-1-sit” or “3-2-1-stand.” Ideally, this provides a smooth transition from the lift onto the small slope where you land. Life, however, does not always behave ideally. Something very freaky happened on this lift.

We rode up on the lift and discussed how to get off properly, since he hadn’t done it with a blind person before. We talked about landing with your skis straight or a little wedge, then going into the bigger stopping wedge. “If you go down I’ll pick you up. If I go down you pick me up.” Rich joked. That joke almost became true.

After all our talk, Rich forgot to give the countdown. As I stepped off, I felt the ground rapidly falling away. I panicked slightly, and just went for it and stepped off. I fell I don’t know how far and landed on my skis. I didn’t fall. I brought myself to a stop, holding onto Rich. “What the fuck happened?” I blurted out, my adrenalin pumping. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t give you the right command. Sorry.” I felt a little shaken, and I bumped my elbow, but I quickly recovered and felt fine. Loretta quickly joined us. “Well! That was interesting.” she said. “That was all my fault. We didn’t get off quickly enough.” I felt kind of bad for the guy, but not too bad – self-preservation comes first. At least I learned not to regard lifts with such a carefree attitude. A skiing buddy said that more people get hurt on the lifts than on the mountain and I believe it.

The time had come for a special Taza Chocolate break. I got this great cacao tin from Trader Joe’s. After going through the chocolate covered nibs in the tin, I replaced them with Taza’s. This makes an absolutely fabulous way to carry cacao on the go, while skiing for instance. Just pop open the top and pour some nibs into your hand and enjoy. No fuss, no muss. Yes, after that little freakout I needed some raw cacao. I explained it to both my instructors. It’s unrefined.

Loretta decided to start down with me using hand signals, and Rich would catch up. She had dropped a C-clamp, and I met her Black Diamond girl, who volunteered to go look for it. How cute. Loretta asked what had happened on the lift, and said it looked like I stepped off too late. She said that I have some skills to have righted myself like that. The fall had loosened a boot, which she fixed. We then took off. Rich caught up to us and we did more turns. We also worked on controlling my speed. It felt good knowing that Loretta could control my movement at any time, and that let me let myself go a little and improve. Rich continued giving me audio directions as well. It made a good combination. At one point, I alternated weighting my skis, so instead of stopping I made several nice turns. It looked pretty, but I didn’t stop. It worked out well though on the beginner trail. At the end of the run, Loretta and Rich switched roles, so Loretta skied backwards in front of me and Rich controlled the tether. I learned more about digging the edges of the skis into the snow, instead of just widening my stance. Bringing your knees together will make your skis go up on their sides. Not ideal, but it works in an emergency. “Textbook turns.” said Rich.

We reached the bottom once again. I checked out the progress of Ski Tracks. Loretta felt amazed that it could tell me that we go on a twelve degree slope. Note that since updating the app it now reports four degrees. She explained what a twelve degree slope meant to her kid. I disabled VoiceOver and screen curtain and let her daughter Jamie check it out. She quickly figured out how to take the picture featured in this article. That done, we continued to the lift. Loretta and I talked about how ten-year-olds can use technology better than their parents. She wouldn’t have known how to take that picture with my iPhone, but her daughter did. I joked about the sesame street song. It excites me to see kids getting into this technology.

We went down again with Loretta in front and Rich tethering again. I made some more nice turns. Loretta gave me a high five. I sometimes have to wait longer and not panic and just let the turn work. I also have to work on my left turn. We worked to a less steep part, and that started to sound good, as my knees had begun to tire. It had gotten to 03:15, and my lesson ended at 04:00. I figured I should at least get one last run in. We saw the guy who runs the sailing program. I went once, but forgot to write about it, because we got rained out. I’ll try again in the summer.

Loretta and I went up. “Rich is the equipment manager for the day, because the time he left me in control I lost part of it… But then again, he almost lost you, so… We don’t let things like that slide, we’ll tease him about that for a long time.” Now it belongs to the ages. Poor guy. We also talked of the expo she wants to set up in the West Chester area for adaptive sports. I’ll keep you all posted.

Unfortunately, my recording ran out at this point. I found it an extremely valuable aide to record my lesson, and would very highly recommend it to instructors and students alike. You can really go over things that you may have missed in all the excitement. I don’t really remember anything eventful happening in the last run, as I began to tire. We made it down and decided to call it a day. By the time we made it back up the lift and back to the adaptive center, it had gotten to 03:56, good enough. I switched off Ski Tracks and there you go.

  • Maximum Speed 6.2 MPH
  • Ski Distance 1.1 mi.
  • Ski Vertical 458 ft
  • Slope 4°
  • Duration 02:15:09

I took off my skis, but my boots resided in that stupid locker. I said farewell to my new skiing buddies, and my brother exited the building. We returned the equipment and I showed them the precious pass that indeed came up overdo, but it didn’t matter.

I felt good. Skiing reminds me of meditation. You have to maintain balance no matter what happens in your mind or on the slopes. And, like transmuting energy, you have to stand tall! If you don’t it will weigh you down and you will fall to your lower nature or to gravity.

Last year’s lesson felt like a good initial experience. We all held onto the pole for the most part, which let me have fun experiencing the exhilaration. This time had more of the feel of a real lesson. We spent the whole time pretty much working on turning and stopping, two essential and related skills. It just made me want to come back for more as soon as possible. My mind reflected the gently falling snow, and I enjoyed the tranquility. Too bad it wouldn’t last.

the Thirsty Camel did not seem like the ideal place to gather, but gather we did. Camelback… Thirsty Camel… get it? Neither did we. My senses felt overwhelmed in a sea of obnoxiously loud music from an obnoxiously loud band. I do not know if a sighted person can fully appreciate how this feels for a blind person. It causes a complete loss of orientation, and a lack of ability to identify anything. It basically makes it completely impossible to think or function. I know sighted people feel this way to some degree, but I think the blind experience something even more dreadful. Imagine the sensation of having a blaring fire alarm in a building. Imagine the panicked disorientation from that sustained loud noise. Imagine that happening for an hour after a peaceful afternoon. It felt kind of like that.

At least everyone agreed about the music. “This band is terrible.” “What a shitty cover band.” Seriously, I don’t get cover bands. In my mind, if a piece of art doesn’t produce a sense of wonder and novelty, then it just seems like crap to me.

I felt distressed. My head ached from the music, and my heart ached from having my tranquility blotted out by yet another cover of Brown-Eyed Girl. At least my headphones shut out things enough for me to use my iPhone to post a tweet to that effect. At some point during the cacophony, I got my boots back. After an hour, we headed out. Finally!

Some of us headed for a bus back to our car, and others remained to ski a little longer. The driver asked where everyone wanted to go. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” he said decisively. Of course I caught the reference to Star Trek III: the Search for Spock. Then, we met a real wise guy. When my sister moved to give his kid her seat, he said: “‘Ey! Never take a seat from a lady.” “I’m not a lady, i’m a woman.” my sister retorted, but the father would have none of it. Poor kid. His brother couldn’t make it today. Everyone in my family understood. I told him that I came up here to do the adaptive skiing program. “That’s good. That’s real good. When you come up here, take lessons first. It’s like counting 1-2-3. Don’t listen to these schmucks!” What a character. We thought about his kid’s fate for some time. We came to the conclusion that he will end up beating his girlfriend. How savage. We got off at our stop. “Live long and prosper.” I said to the driver. We then found our cars. I relieved myself in the parking lot, partially as a primitive male act of revenge against the loud bar. We then drove to the hotel where we would all converge to have dinner at Chilis.

When we entered the Howard Johnson in Bartonsville, Pennsylvania, we noticed that they had a little party going on. DJ Swift (I hope I linked to the right one) had organized some sort of birthday celebration. A sign promised music and comedy. It seemed like a private affair and we had other business. Still, it had peaked our curiosity. Something would happen soon.

After taking a breather in one of our hotel rooms, we all converged and ran across the somewhat busy street to Chilis. I can only wonder what an alien observer would think of us. “It’s terrible.” “The food has this weird greasy property.” “It makes you feel so gross.” “All right! Let’s go!” I guess it had become a tradition of sorts by this point. I got exactly what I got last year, and everyone seemed to think I got the best thing then: the something-Bacher black bean barbecue burger without cheese and with jalapenos on the side. And yes fries, to hopefully make up for those horrible fries from earlier. “They should call this place Burgers.” someone commented. I actually took it pretty well, they say that hunger makes the best condiment, and I felt truly hungry. It did feel like a brick later on, but I survived.

We had to get back in time for people to go in the Safari-themed Heated Pool. My brother went on and on about it to his friends, getting them into the idea. Hotel pools kind of freak me out, so I never really had an interest. I confess that having an in-ground pool while growing up biased my view. You really can’t beat that as far as pools go. Anyways, the pool closed at 10:00, and they wanted to get back in time.

As we entered the foyer, we noticed that the party had started! We heard loud hip-hop music. Not only did they have a door closed to outsiders, but they also had a second closed door with a chair in front of it. We definitely did not feel welcome. More loud booming noise.

We took a break in a hotel room for everyone to digest their food and prepare to go downstairs. Ari took a power nap. Those things really work. We had some fun conversation. I have a feeling some of the alcohol had begun to take effect in those who imbibe. We made fun of creationists. Some believe that humans and dinosaurs lived together on the Earth six thousand years ago. An idea for a movie formed: Jesus vs. the Lizard! Cat informed us that she had explored all the vending machines in the hotel, and said the best one resides on the second floor by the main lobby. We laughed at her attempt to microwave a poptart on a piece of cardboard. No thanks! At around 09:30 or so we began to get ready to go. Most took off to go swimming, while a few of stayed behind for a moment, as we didn’t really care to go. At around 09:45, we decided to catch up to them and at least hang out in the pool room.

Mike noticed the hotel has an arcade. He said he always likes checking them out, just to see what they have to offer. Some “game rooms” just have a soda machine. As we reentered the foyer, we noticed that the comedy portion of the show had started. The comedian’s voice blared loudly. “Bedbugs! Have you seen these nothafuckas?” “Woo! Telling bedbug jokes in a hotel.” I commented sarcastically. “Man! This guy doesn’t care WHO’s toes he steps on! He’s like Bill Hicks!” retorted Steve. We could hardly contain ourselves. This scene just kept getting weirder.

We entered the pool room to find the others standing around in their swim suits and towels. Apparently, they didn’t turn the heater on, and nobody wanted to swim in freezing water. Some had also brought drinks for the heated pool, which they now held. I imagine we must have looked quite comical tromping into the arcade at closing time.

To our delight, the arcade actually had video games. They had a pinball game, a shooter kind of game, and one or two others. The group broke up into several conversations. I found myself by some pamphlets. The others looked through them and read them aloud so I could join in the fun. Paws and Claws: a depressing zoo. A snake and animal farm. Then the one that got our attention: a shooting range. Shoot four kinds of guns: an AR15, an Israeli Uzi, Clint Eastwood’s .44, or an AK47. I think some members seriously considered going to the range the next day. I wondered if they’d actually let a blind person shoot. Ari figured they’d feel proud of it and put it on their web site. Guns freak me out, but it would make a hell of an article. . At some point the security guard came over to tell us that they would close, but we ignored him.

I noticed nobody playing the games, and asked if they had shut them down. “No, we don’t have any quarters.” a number of voices resounded. “What? I have tons of quarters!” I got out my wallet. I soon had everyone around me, offering me $5 per quarter in jest. I excitedly handed out a few. “I want to play pinball!” I said enthusiastically. Of course I thought of the song by the Who. I also really did play it as a kid during summer vacations at the shore. As I said this, the security guard came up again. We clearly had to leave. “Don’t worry, Austin… There’s always next year.” said my brother. He played it absolutely perfectly, saying it with the exact right twinge of sadness to make it really seem like this doofus had shattered a blind kid’s dreams of playing pinball forever. From all accounts, the guy’s face fell. “You can come back tomorrow morning at 09:00.” We left, and as soon as we reached the other side of the door started laughing uncontrollably. We had all had enough, and went upstairs back to the hotel room. Some people needed to change, and we all needed to relax for a minute after that hilarious scene.

We had one last promised attraction on this trip: the Safari themed bar. By this point I really didn’t feel like dealing with any more bars and loudness. I wanted to reflect on the day and gather my thoughts. I feel glad I recorded the day’s lesson in retrospect. I figured I’d go for a little just for the fun of it though.

We ended up there, others talking and most drinking. I had cranberry and pineapple juice, pretty much the only thing someone who doesn’t drink can get in a place like that. We think the weird bartender wanted to hit on the girls there. The private party had switched back to more music. Loud bass drums boomed through the walls, shattering the fake Safari theme all the more.

I found out how others had enjoyed their day. Mike, Steve, and Cat all went skiing and enjoyed it. Kristy did not. Ari and Sarah went snowboarding and had a good time, even if they got a little bruised. Rich said he started out snowboarding. “The first time I went, my pads went flying everywhere.” “Oh, yeah, pads. That would have been smart.” said my brother. Now he knows for next time.

Audrey and Jean went snow tubing. I guess you just ride a big tube down the mountain. The web site promised an adrenalin rush, but “The web site promises a lot of things.” Apparently they didn’t really get that rush us crazy skiers crave. They went very slowly, and you don’t really control anything, just sort of go down. I don’t know that they really dug it. I told them to go skiing instead!

We started talking about marriage and relationships. Yes maybe I would like to get married one day, and yes sure I’d love to have a friend for life, but I really can’t think right now. I meant it literally. I really could not think. I had to rest and I could not deal with any more loud noise.

I went upstairs to one of the rooms where we watched some TV and just chilled. I listened to some stuff on my iPhone and went to bed. I tried not to think about who had slept in this bed previously. I wanted to try to get some meditation in, but it just didn’t happen. I fell asleep with the day’s many events and thoughts running through my head, and I attempted to order things in some sense for writing this article.

The next day we woke up, and I played a little on my MacBook Air. I had no trouble connecting to their network or to their proxy, which I now have even more mixed feelings about. We all met again in the hotel restaurant where we had a crappy breakfast and got the bum’s rush by the waiters. I got a ride home with Mike and Kristy, and made it back at around 02:30 in the afternoon. Not bad at all. Skiing rules!

Epilogue: A few days later, my brother Ari called to see how I enjoyed the trip. “I was thinking. That food sucked, and those waiters at breakfast were dicks. You know? We could get a cabin if a bunch of us go. We could all pitch in and rent it for the weekend. Remember my bachelor party? It would be like that but with snow.” So I think that settled that. Next year, we will rent a cabin and have even more fun. We might still drop by the Howard Johnson for a game of pinball though. I guess for now I’ll have to content myself wit the Jungle Style table from Pinball HD. Close enough.

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